TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – Law enforcement will have a heavy focus this week on traffic safety in school zones. This comes as many local students have already gone back to class this week, and others will soon.

The message from local law enforcement is simple: heightened awareness when driving in school zones could save you a ticket – or even save a life.

“We want folks to pay a little bit more attention, much more situational awareness,” said Tom Patton with the Kingsport Police Department. “Be aware kids are very unpredictable. They don’t always know the rules themselves. They may dart out between parked cars, they may not use crosswalks.”

Police typically focus on two common violations in school zones.

“Speeding is a big problem, and the other is distracted driving, being on the cell phone. You cannot be texting,” said Washington County, Tenn. Sheriff Keith Sexton.

Tennessee’s ‘Hands Free’ law enacted in 2019 makes it illegal to have your phone in your hand while driving. The fine jumps from $50 to $200 if committed in a school zone.

As kids head back to class, officers across the Tri-Cities have committed to ramping up patrols. Sexton says that includes specific distracted driving operations in Washington County where officers will be watching for ‘hands free’ violations.

“We will simply have an officer parked just before the start of the school zone, and he will be looking for people distracted on their cell phone,” said Sexton.

When it comes to school buses, people often break the law when they are not paying attention or simply do not know the rules of stopping.

“It’s important to know that if there is a school bus that is stopped with a sign out, we must stop even if it is on the other side of the road, unless there is a physical barrier,” said Patton.

Bus drivers play crucial role in school zone safety

As for those who take your kids to school on the buses, there is an overwhelmingly common trend: a shortage of bus drivers at school systems regionwide.

“We are gonna see some shortages with bus drivers, we are gonna see bus drivers out with different illnesses. Their job is crucial to helping keep students safe,” said Dr. Steve Barnett, Superintendent of Johnson City Schools.

Barnett explained as the school year begins for Johnson City Schools, alterations have been made so bus drivers can come back to the schools and pick up a second round of kids.

This means staff members are being paid to stay behind and watch those remaining children until the driver can come back to pick them up. If all bus driver positions were filled and all routes could be completed, this would not be necessary.

“Our goal is to have everyone home by 4 p.m.,” Barnett said.

For Kingsport City Schools, there is a similar trend of adjusting to the consistent bus driver shortage. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andy True said they are pushing anyone looking for a job to consider driving a school bus.

“It is such a rewarding position because you have that interaction with students every day,” True said.

Starting the school year with too few drivers is not ideal, which is why KCS is committing to helping those interested in driving a bus.

“We can provide high levels of training, high levels of certification to be able to help someone who wants to be a bus driver but has never gone through the experience or the training,” said True.

As those flashing lights on school buses and school zone signs begin to pop up across the region, it’s a reminder to keep your focus on the road at all times.

“People need to be aware to be patient. If you need to, schedule a little more time, leave the house a little bit earlier,” said Sexton.